It was not the Marxist ideal in communism that was in error, really. It was that communism was compelled, rather than voluntary. Sometimes a sympathizer with classical Marxist ideology will write to me expounding on the compassionate and generous instincts that he believes are at the heart of Marxism, and reminding me that the Acts of the Apostles describes “wealth distribution” as a social good.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. (Acts 2:44-45)
If Marxism has failed to make manifest the gloriously free and prosperous (or at least materially comfortable) society that it has long-promised—and the more honest debaters will admit that it has failed to produce either liberty or prosperity, wherever it has been tried—the failure, my correspondents argue, has been one of application. If only the right sort of people were charged with implementing Marx's ideas, the theory would prove itself remarkably successful, just as it was for the Apostles.
Well, I agree. But I hasten to point out that the operative words in these verses are “right sort.” The believers freely gave up their properties for the good of the whole community. Non-believers were not compelled to participate; they were left to their own affairs.
I doubt our modern-day exponents of Marxist theory would be amenable to the idea that the Apostolic counterparts to Peter, John, and James would be the right kind of leaders for their distributive endeavor. My correspondents believe that they, themselves, are just the right sort of people to empower with the task of obliterating hunger, poverty, and war, and they would do it without forcing people to submit to what one correspondent has called the “endless ‘no’” of the church.
In good faith, allow me to suggest that the only “right sort” people to entrust with an idea as radical as Marx’s are those who possess a spirit or intellect generous enough to acknowledge the workings of grace, those able to recognize that only something greater than man—call it the Holy Spirit—can induce an instinct voluntarily to enter into a communal life. Absent that, the practice will fail.
Communism, attempted without the infinite capacity and infinite hope that comes from working with and for the infinite God, becomes a mere movement of man, consistent with the nature of man, which is imperfect, selfish, and self-rewarding.
The failed Marxist experiments involved human schemes to prohibit “anti-social behavior” and enforce codified “kindness” supported by informants and intimidation; they enforced a spirit-killing, drive-killing acquiescence but offered no hope for real communism. Action compelled by government can never transcend itself, because the person has nothing to draw on from within, or look to from without.
Without the Holy Spirit prompting the human soul toward the willing surrender of goods and gifts—not for the good of “the state” or “the party” or for some general idea about feckless and unwieldy humanity, but for the sole use of God and the service of his glory—the compelled surrender of humankind serves only to frighten, to inhibit, to shackle and bind, rather than to loosen or free. It feeds the instinct to hoard, rather than hand out. It creates the Gulag.
The state, man-made, cannot embody the greatness the communist promises. All states, all governments, eventually evolve into some Democratic-and-quasi-Capitalist amalgam or they collapse beneath the weight of corruption, for no human being is all-good, and where humanity “may” fail, it eventually will.
Even the church, guided and sustained by the Holy Spirit, has been rocked by the reality of the unavoidable and constant truth that man is broken and in need of salvation.
But it is only by way of the church, in service to the God who instituted her, that anything approaching a Classical Marxist ideal can ever succeed, and in only and exactly the manner in which we have seen it succeed since the Acts of the Apostles and the formation of the earliest monasteries and those extant today: through the self-complete surrender to Christ, the voluntary, un-coerced, un-compelled embracing of personal poverty, and a willingness to be denuded and effaced for the sake of the soul, and that soul's community.
This is the only just means by which a communist ideal may be implemented, and because its undertaking is supernaturally and paradoxically empowering—one becomes free by radically, willfully limiting one’s personal options and possessions—it is anathema to those whose understanding of liberty have been perverted and distorted into something wholly unfree, and super-unnatural.
The communal theory can bring an abundance of riches and a wealth of liberty, but only when each individual first surrenders them both, and not to anyone on earth.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer of First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.